The past eight years have been like watching a TV makeover show in reverse. We entered the Bush era a ravishing beauty attracting envious stares. We leave it a gum-smacking sad sack with split ends and an empty social calendar. Over the course of George W. Bush's second term, in particular, the images of our country have not just been unattractive but virtually apocalyptic: a major city destroyed; cars raining into the Mississippi from a crumbling bridge; swaths of exurbia dotted with foreclosed homes; a financial system in ruins; angry emotionalism flooding politics.
There are many causes of this bleak age, and not all of them can be laid at the feet of the president. But there's no doubt that Bush has run down the one engine capable of making our vast economic and physical infrastructure function properly: the federal government. He has disregarded the tenets that have guided the state since the Progressive Era--deference to disinterested expertise, an apolitical civil service, reliance on regulation to protect the common good. The ethos of the executive branch under his command has been one of "heckuva job" hackery and anti-intellectualism. So the next president will not just inherit an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis, an infrastructural crisis, and, oh yes, two wars, an overstretched military, and a looming Iranian threat. He will inherit a government weakened to the point that it has become ill-equipped to protect the well-being of its citizens.
It's hardly surprising that, as a matter of policy, we overwhelmingly prefer that Barack Obama win the prize of dealing with this mess. But it is his temperament and smarts that give us some hope that he can do more than manage the damage wrought by Bush--that he can actually take advantage of the once-in-a-century opportunity presented by the current crisis and transform the American state.
Any endorsement comes with doubts. We have our share. With a candidate lacking in experience, how can you not? We wish that he had greater fluency in the global economy and the financial system he will likely remake. In foreign policy, Obama's slender record offers few clues. At moments--for instance, during his shaky response to Russia's invasion of Georgia--we ourselves have had jitters.
But we also have hopes that Obama will govern as the person who revealed himself in this campaign. On the whole, he has turned in one of the more impressive performances in recent political history--demonstrating an ability to explain complex ideas in plainspoken English, impeccable managerial skills, evenness of temper, avoidance of sloppy errors, and pragmatism, not to mention that he can really deliver a speech.
TNR editor Frank Foer gives a behind-the-scenes look
at the magazine's endorsement of Barack Obama
If the John McCain of 2001 or 2002 were running, this might be a far closer call. At that time, this magazine considered McCain a truly great political figure. During the 2000 primaries, we endorsed Al Gore and John McCain, an unorthodox step for us. Better than anyone in Washington, McCain made the case against creeping income inequality and political corruption. Oftentimes, we found ourselves wishing that his Democratic counterparts spoke with such clarity. Indeed, a cover story we ran urged him to switch parties. We didn't expect that he would listen, but we didn't expect that he would transform himself into a Sean Hannity conservative, either. And we certainly failed to appreciate how his impulsiveness could lead him to such spectacularly bad decisions (Sarah Palin) and such a spectacularly incoherent campaign. The implosion of the old McCain, if he ever truly existed as we imagined, saddens us, not least because the candidate he's become is so poorly suited to the challenges of the moment.
Obama, by contrast, has the makings of a man who understands the times. In these pages, our colleague Cass R. Sunstein has described his governing style as "visionary minimalism." By this, he means Obama will work to achieve an ambitious agenda but will revise his opinion when the evidence dictates a different course. He is a sincere liberal but without the temperament of an ideologue. His health care and environmental plans are broadly progressive but make concessions to the free market and do not fit the platonic ideals of the left. He doesn't intend to create a single-payer system (alas) and expresses openness to nuclear power. His recent education rhetoric has incorporated the best of the reform movement.
You can already grasp the political benefits of this style. It's striking how many conservatives have complimented Obama, even those who oppose him. No less than Charles Krauthammer has declared that he possesses a "first-class intellect and a first-class temperament." His appeal to the right has everything to do with his detached style. Obama has even been described as a Burkean. Unlike Bush, he actually listens to those with whom he vehemently disagrees; and, in the course of debating John McCain, he frequently, and without hesitation, voiced agreement.
Now, braininess and a knack for riffing on Reinhold Niebuhr hardly guarantees a successful presidency. But this is a distinct moment with an economy that won't likely be healed by the simple application of off-the-shelf ideological prescriptions or a diminished government blanched of experts. In the middle of this recession, the national mood will run raw. Major policy changes, now inevitable, will exacerbate the anger.
Fortunately, Obama has a fetish for data and the company of social scientists, as Noam Scheiber has shown in his reporting. And, just as important, he has the soothing demeanor that might calm tempers and the gift for language that could make necessary, but not necessarily popular, policies more palatable. His election offers an opportunity to roll back the Bush legacy and perhaps--if he turns out to be the rare transformational president that occurs when man and moment meld--even restore us to our former beauty.
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This article originally ran in the November 5, 2008, issue of the magazine.